Visual Analysis of Hendrick Avercamp's "Skating Near a Town"

I am an art history major, so two of my favorite classes from this academic year have unsurprisingly been The History of Western Art and The History of Modern Art. Enthralling lectures and aesthetic gratification aside, one of the best aspects of the courses has been the visual analysis writing involved. Requiring no outside research, visual analysis involves only what one can discern from viewing the piece. With the St. Louis Art Museum in the beautiful Forest Park only a twenty minute walk from campus, the scenic walk alone is enough to propel me to view renowned art now and then. This morning I ventured there to study Kandinsky's 1911 Winter Landscape and left with pages of notes in my moleskine notebook. It's a therapeutic process staring at a single piece of art for such a long time, and surprising how many observations and conclusion the average viewer can walk away with in one afternoon. Here are the thoughts I left with on a trip earlier this year when I studied Hendrick Avercamp's Skating Near a Town: 

Beyond the immediate pull of the copious number of figures and the very intricate presentation of their individuality, perhaps the most striking feature of Hendrick Avercamp’s Skating Near a Town is the way its subjects seem oblivious to the bleak desolation that is the wintry landscape they inhabit. The reality of this depiction is that it cannot be attributed to only one element of the painting, be it color, application of paint, or actions of its subjects. Instead, a medley of each of these elements, and the humility of each on its own, lend a subtlety to the purpose of the image that piques the interest of the viewer and compels him to venture further into its meaning as a piece. 
An initially striking feature of Skating Near a Town is the prevalence of the human figure dotting the landscape, a reality that quickly becomes intriguing, as it departs from the traditional subjects of landscape painting. Adding this second layer over the natural features of the landscape such as the pond, trees, and surrounding land, contributes to the subsequent visual pull of the piece. The viewer immediately gets the sense of a cozy, large gathering among these people; of all ages and spotting the landscape in many clusters, their various activities are unhurried, but have a sort of vivacious energy to them. Upon closer inspection, we make out a flood of diverse actions: skating, riding in a horse-drawn carriage, sliding on a toboggan, clutching baskets, hockey playing, and engaging in lively chatter. While the sheer number of people implies a large, organized gathering, the variance of small groups and activities suggests a certain spontaneity and freedom. What’s more, the casual actions of these citizens gives the viewer the sense that this is an average day for them; it is most likely a weekend day due to the multitude of leisure activities depicted. Their ordinary dress also suggests that this gathering is not for any special occasion. Furthermore, there is a suggestion of a love of the outdoors despite the wintry chill; a lack of emphasis on, or detail of the surrounding homes dotting the landscape almost compels the viewer to come outside and join them, an inviting force that counteracts the austere setting of the painting. It is interesting to note, however, the lack of overt beckoning; no figure directly faces the viewer, but is instead very absorbed in his or her own activities. This obliviousness to the periphery heightens the sense of a necessity of finely tuned senses for survival, while also forcing the viewer to focus more on the figures’ activities. 
Beyond the visual weight of the activities and sheer abundance of the people depicted, another dominating impression of the painting is created through the size of the figures against the landscape. Although they seem comfortable and cheery out in the cold, we are reminded of the domineering hold nature has over mankind, in part because the people are quite small and defenseless against the huge backdrop of snow and ice. The composition is roughly divided in two, with half of the space devoted to sky and half to the earth; because the sky is equally as expansive as the ground, its much emptier space is emphasized and adds an aesthetic balance to the many clusters of characters engaging the eye in the other half of the piece. With a landscape orientation, there is strong horizontal directional force in the painting. This is caused in part by the inability to view its entirety while standing at the close range required to study its small elements. This planar orientation within the piece is most evident at a close distance, as the painting does not fit in the viewer’s cone of vision and he or she must scan the eye across the work to view it in its entirety. Within the piece, horizontal lines situate themselves predominantly along the horizon, but less obvious horizontal planes and implied lines appear where people are clustered; the way that they are standing lends a sense of order and organization despite their varied activities. More evident are the horizontal lines indicating transitions between foreground, middle ground, and background along the earth, ice, and sky because of the clarity of the division between each physical geography. It is interesting to note, however, that although the painting’s orientation is horizontal, most figures have a very vertical directional force which counteracts the flatness of the landscape. While horizontal and vertical lines and implied orientations are more immediately apparent, diagonal lines are few, yet they stand out in their isolation. Most clear in the sailboat masts, they point conveniently toward the vanishing point of the painting, accentuating the piece’s perspective. 
Skating Near a Town is a painting of very biological subject matter, therefore Avercamp’s use of shape is less constrained and structural as it might be in a more conceptual take on this ideation. As a landscape painting full of people, most shapes take on a very organic formation lacking strict architectural structures. Instead, the similar but unidentical geometries of natural contours lend a cohesion to the composition, while also maintaining a strong level of interest in the viewer as a result of the slight disparities among them. There is a clear emphasis on the human form which most closely resembles a rectangle if it must liken itself to a most similar geometric shape; trees and buildings also mimic this pattern, while shying away from strict containment in form. The lack of repetition of exact shapes suggests Avercamp’s close study of natural variations of forms, while the similarities among figures add to the unity of the composition. 
Color, too, plays an enormous role in the effectiveness of Skating Near a Town as a piece of art. The color of the landscape itself is very muted and of low intensity, indicating a bleak and unforgiving landscape. As a result of this inhospitable sense we get from the landscape, the lively activities of the people stand out in the foreground, something the viewer perceives again and again as integral to the effect Avercamp wished to portray. The greatest contrast in color is between the dark trees and the pale ice and sky, perhaps suggesting the struggle of growth in such a climate and reminding us of the fortuitous fact that the townspeople have homes to return to for respite from the cold. Beyond the contrast between vegetation and atmosphere, the emergence of the people of the town is aided in part by the most saturated color in their clothing. The lighter value of the figures in the background also helps the viewer focus his eyes on the central part of the piece. Their clothing is mostly blue and orange hues which are complementary colors; this choice of a harmonious color scheme suggests a community and a cozy bond between the townspeople. Little color discord also contributes to the comfort exhibited by the figures; the only real disharmony among color is between the human figure and the landscape, a subtle reminder that no level of comfort will completely transform such an environment into a hospitable one. 
There is, however, a strong sense of the juxtaposition between cold and warmth due to the bundling of thick clothing to combat the obvious freezing temperatures. This sense of cold is heightened when the viewer glances the man who has fallen on the ice as he touches it to brace himself; it is also emphasized in the most prominent man in the foreground who hunches over in the wind, stuffing his hands into his pockets and dipping his face into his coat with his hat pulled down as far as it will go. Although the time of day is unclear due to such a muted sky and dim sense of sight, the light source is clearly straight ahead and slightly to the left of the viewer; this is evident by the reflections of the figures on the ice and the shadow of the man farthest in the foreground. The lightest lights are in the ice and sky and especially the traces of snow (little snow covering the tree branches and homes suggests that springtime might be near). The darkest darks of the painting are at the bases of the trees and buildings, but extend not far beyond the objects themselves, helping Avercamp in representing the waning light of day in their short length. It is essential to note that Avercamp shies away from excessive information in this work; while the colorless sky gives us little information on the time of day, the subtle shadows of his figures do. There is no doubt that the lack of redundant elements keeps the viewer very much engaged. 

Hendrick Avercamp’s Skating Near a Town depicts a scene familiar to nearly every viewer who’s ever witnessed a wintry landscape. The lack of pretentiousness of the subjects’ homes, dress, and activities suggests that he meant to display his work to the common man, but perhaps more specifically it is directed at one unused to the activities of people living in the cold north of Europe. The artist welcomes even less worldly viewers through his careful inclusion of nearly every possible activity one could partake in on ice. Meant to regard the painting at eye level and at a close range to see the small scale of the figures, the viewer, if extremely close, can detect the faint silhouette of a town in the very background of the image, another slight indication of the painting’s title. This work of art is most notable for such elements that require close observation to discern; Avercamp strikes a subtle balance between constructing a composition at a small enough scale to bring the viewer closer, yet holds him at arm’s length by painting his figures as oblivious to the viewer’s presence. Clearly fascinated with the people he encountered, Avercamp’s own close study encourages the viewer to peer into the world he creates to investigate its inhabitants further, suggesting that a landscape is empty and meaningless without those who inhabit it.

Don't Ask Me How I Know It, 


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